Carlos does not regret 'statement'

Carlos does not regret 'statement'

Published Jun. 19, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

John Carlos has always been a confrontational man, from his brash youth running the streets of Harlem to his life now as an icon of civil rights. So perhaps I should have seen this coming.

I was talking with him on a recent morning about his courageous, controversial moment at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City — the moment for which Carlos believes he was put on this earth.

In front of a crowd of more than 60,000 at Estadio Olímpico Universitario, Carlos and fellow sprinter Tommie Smith stood on the medal stand and gave defiant black-power salutes during the U.S. national anthem. The two men held black-gloved fists in the air for less than 60 seconds, but it would come to be one of the defining images of the civi-rights era.

I wanted to ask Carlos what it felt like when the crowd began to boo him and his fellow 200-meter medalists. I wanted to ask him about the intersection of politics and sport. And I wanted to ask when it’s appropriate for an athlete to use the enormous stage of the supposedly apolitical Olympic Games to express his beliefs.


But when I asked, Carlos, 67 years old but still itching for a fight, came out swinging.

“You think I should have stood in front of the Apollo and said something?” Carlos said. “What other stand should I have taken? Where should I have gone to make my statement? To the UN? Maybe to the White House, huh?”

He paused, then snorted. In Carlos’ eyes, and in the eyes of history, this was a moment that begged for provocation. “If you was in that situation, where would you go to make your statement?”

He’s right, of course. There was perhaps no better stage — surely no bigger one — where Carlos could voice the African-American anger at the plodding pace of the civil-rights movement and the inequalities in black America. It was perhaps the most tumultuous year in modern American times: Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy assassinated, public opinion turning against the Vietnam War, riots on the streets of Chicago, President Johnson declining to run for a second term, some segments of the civil-rights movement adopting a more militant pose.

Carlos wanted to show the world African-Americans weren’t going to take it anymore.

“This society here in the United States is trained to only focus when they see headlines in the paper or hear it in the news,” Carlos told “If they don’t see it in the paper or hear it in the news, there’s no reason to have a quandary in their mind to think whether it’s right or wrong, up or down.”

So Carlos and Smith made their own headlines. After their fists were raised in the Olympic stadium, objects were thrown at them. The two were kicked out of the Olympic Village. A young sportswriter named Brent Musburger compared them to Nazis when he called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” The United States team was nearly ejected from the 1968 Games.

And, ultimately, Smith’s and Carlos’ fists became resonant symbols in modern times of speaking truth to power and of using the podium of sport to do so.

“There’s nothing more political than sports,” said Dan Durbin, director of USC Annenberg’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society. “They’re engaged in the politics of our world, everything from presidents inviting the Super Bowl champions to the White House to the international politics of the IOC. It’s all intertwined.”

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis helped a country seething with racial tension to unite in rooting for African-American sports heroes. Jackie Robinson’s entry into the big leagues was a catalyst for America’s civil-rights movement. Muhammad Ali used the megaphone of a heavyweight champ to stand against the Vietnam War. A ragtag group of U.S. Olympic hockey players beat the more polished Soviets at the height of the Cold War: a symbol of good over evil, of David over Goliath.

Countries boycotted sporting events against South Africa as a statement against apartheid; later, South African President Nelson Mandela used rugby to bring together the racially divided nation. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sparked a controversy about patriotism and free speech when he refused to stand for the national anthem before NBA games. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns spoke out about the Iraq War and, later, the Arizona immigration law. Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas refused to come to the White House because he didn’t like President Obama. The popular Chilean national soccer coach nearly ran for president.

Even things as seemingly insignificant as fighter jets doing flyovers at football games or President Obama making his March Madness picks on ESPN or President Nixon suggesting a play call for a Washington Redskins playoff game demonstrate exactly how intertwined sports and politics can be.

And the Olympic movement, even as its strains to be above the political fray, is far from exempt. No matter how hard you try, when you invite the world to come together, the problems of the world will come as well.

Politics have been injected into sport since the beginning of the modern Olympics, when royal families inserted themselves into the games. World wars caused three Olympics to be canceled (1916, 1940 and 1944). Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as a propaganda tool.

The first Olympic boycott occurred in 1908, when Irish athletes wanting independence from Britain boycotted the games in London. In 1956, three Muslim countries refused to attend to protest the invasion of the Suez Canal. In 1980, the U.S. and 61 other countries skipped the Moscow Summer Games; in 1984 the Soviet Union returned the favor and boycotted the Los Angeles Games. And, of course, there was the horrendous political statement made by terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, the pro-Palestinian piece of political terror that killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

“It’s important to keep in mind that was not an attack on the Olympics,” said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “It was using the fact the Olympics were an international event to gain attention for their cause.”

The IOC knows its stage affords athletes and protestors a huge megaphone if they choose to give voice to their political causes. But the organization would rather take the batteries out of the megaphone than eliminate its use. From pre-Olympic student riots in Mexico City in 1968 to human-rights concerns in Beijing in 2008, the ugly political realities surrounding the Olympics often are papered over by organizers and given short shrift by media.

Yet this summer in London, there’s no shortage of political causes that could use the Olympics as a staging ground. England has a large Muslim population, which could mean protests against Israel. Muslim countries that aren’t allowing female athletes to compete, such as Saudi Arabia, could provide fodder for political statement. And who knows what sort of economic- or war-related protests could erupt at the games?

“The IOC wants to reduce the nationalism as much as possible,” said Mark Naison, a Fordham University professor who has written extensively on politics and sport. “That’s a noble goal. But it’s also in tension with the fact that this is an awfully tempting stage for people to use for all kinds of purposes. It’s the biggest stage in the world, so it’s natural people with a cause try to use it.”

It’s a juxtaposition, however, that makes some uncomfortable. For some, sports should be about competition, nothing more. And since the corporatization of the Olympics the past three decades, athletes have more money at stake than someone like Carlos did when he made his stand.

Corporate sponsors would rather have a Coke and a smile than a maelstrom of political controversy around their brand. The statement made by Michael Jordan on the medal podium at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona perfectly shows how athletes’ priorities have shifted since Carlos’ time: Air Jordan, the most famous athlete in the world — and a Nike pitchman — used the American flag to cover up the Reebok symbol on his Olympic gear.

For Carlos, not using the Olympic stage he was granted with his bronze medal would have been unfathomable. He thought about Emmett Till; he thought about Rosa Parks; he thought about James Chaney and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were killed because they tried to register voters in Mississippi.

The public opinion immediately after Carlos’ moment on the podium hovered between discomfort and rage. Why did he choose the world’s stage to air America’s dirty laundry?

But the long view of history saw Carlos’ and Smith’s fists as symbols of courage.

“Am I supposed to keep blinders on and just go for the gold?” Carlos said. “Should we have no concern for what happens in our environment? Do we stop being human beings and just be a sports person?”

He’s abrasive. He’s confrontational. And he’s right. Some still view the athlete's role as that of an apolitical performer, trotted out to compete and be rewarded handsomely in fame and riches. Carlos believes an athlete has a responsibility to speak up. After all, if you had something important to say, and you had the stage to say it, wouldn’t you?